Symbols of Meaning in the Modern Workplace

Humankind has been expressing itself through symbols since antiquity. In today’s workplace, we call it brand and culture. Here’s how you can leverage this age-old practice in your own office.

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The Hootsuite office in Vancouver. Photo by Ema Peter Photography, courtesy of Kontor. Click through the image for more details.

Why should workplace designers care about symbols? Because “Space + Brand = Place”. The workplace is the company’s brand. It’s the brand message communicated to your customers, your employees, and your business partners. Step into your “workplace” and instantaneously your brand message is broadcast. In this premium article, Charlie Grantham explores what symbols are, why they matter in the workplace, and how you can use them to guide your business and clients.

Just like the old saying, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” brand is very hard to change. The linkage between brand and culture, according to the brand gurus at Brand New Purpose, looks like this:

“Brand is culture inside out and culture is brand outside in — the two can’t be separated. Space is where the culture is housed physically but place is where the brand culture is housed emotionally and intellectually in all stakeholders inside and out the space.”

So, where do symbols and such come into this discussion? Let’s look at what they are. Pop psychology aside, they are really artifacts of meaning. Humankind has been expressing itself through symbols throughout antiquity – perhaps for 35,000 years.

What is a symbol, and why are they important for workplace designers?

An early image of teamwork and collaboration?
An early image of teamwork and collaboration?

Symbols, whether they be graphical, textual, or colorful — they can even be furniture arrangements — are everywhere in the workplace. They connote deeply held meanings down to a mythological level. They connect with our more primitive brains. They offer identity, common shared values, and provide visibility to culture. They are the signs of your brand.

It’s one thing to understand that symbols (plus myths and rituals) express a brand. But if you put your social scientist hat on for a moment you can see an even deeper connection that has direct implications for what happens in the workplace. Myths, symbols, and rituals stand for your brand, but they also directly influence people’s attitudes and consequently their day-to-day behavior in the workplace.

Here’s how:

Myths

Myths are typically used in a pejorative sense (e.g., “it’s only a myth”); the implication being that there is no truth in myths. Although myths may contain a considerable amount of truth, they differ from theories in that myths are not testable. A myth is a narrative of events, perhaps with an almost sacred quality. Take, for example, the myth of Steve Jobs as a leader. They are the sacred communication that is made in symbolic form and at least some of the events and objects which occur in the myth neither occur nor exist in the world other than in the myth itself. But the important point here is that workplace myths are the story of “how we do things around here and why we do it that way”. The famous “HP Way”, for example.

Symbols

Because people do not share one another’s experiences directly, they must convey their ideas and feelings to each other in ways that others will understand. Symbols are “signs” created by humans to convey our ideas, intentions, and actions to others. They are arbitrary stand-ins for what they represent. To interpret symbols as they are intended, their meanings must be socially shared. They need to be “socialized“.

Rituals

If symbols can be considered “words” that describe reality, rituals represent the rules by which we combine and use these words. This relationship is most easily seen in people’s behavior in meeting rooms fro example. We’ve all experienced the corporate ritual of using code words to describe behavior. “At the end of the day;” “In our wheelhouse”; “Move the needle”, and on and on. These are narrative rituals intended to convey special meaning and signify group membership through common use. But they can also obscure intentions.

What do symbols do?

Symbols, rituals, myths, and the broadcasted brand do several things. But the two most important to me are those things we often refer to as “the 900 pound gorilla in the room” no one wants to talk about. It’s their power to elicit emotions and speak the unspoken. The two things that our “old story” about work says are not to be discussed in the context of design.

Of course symbols (I’m using shorthand here) evoke emotions. Sometimes intentional, sometimes not. Take two examples of conscious emotional stage setting. What’s the difference between felt emotions in casinos compared to cathedrals? No doubt the architects of medieval cathedrals were conscious about imparting a feeling of “a closer walk with thee” in their designs. And now we have an entire sub-discipline of interior design devoted to the gaming industry.

What about speaking the unspoken? Back to our colleagues at Brand New Purpose:

“ …place is where the brand culture is housed emotionally and intellectually.”

It’s that emotional and intellectual context that really doesn’t have to be verbalized, reduced to some quaint phrase on a poster like “We value the individual” or, God forbid, a laminated pocket card you read from when someone asks “What’s it like to work here?”.

And more often than not, it’s the unspoken that speaks louder than words. That’s what these cultural/brand artifacts communicate and that’s why they are so important. Failure to consider this in workplace design is a recipe for a low engagement work environment where productivity is sacrificed at the altar of efficiency.

Examples of symbols in the workplace

Let’s turn to some examples of symbols in the workplace. Remember I am talking about symbols within the context of a full range of brand expression. I want you to consider three major formats: logos, artwork, and use of color.

Logos

We all intuitively know how important logos are. Think of the Apple logo, the Nike logo, and a host of others. They are so commonplace that we don’t even really think about them anymore, we just react to them. As technology develops, new logos come into being which can over time become as iconic as the ones already embedded in our consciousness.

The most intriguing one to me right now is the logo for cloud computing:

cloud

Just what meaning does that communicate to you? Actually — whether it was intentional or not — it imparts a sense of physicality and “realness” to the ethereal idea that your data, your precious business (and cash I may add) is out there somewhere, we aren’t really quite sure exactly where, but we can get it whenever you want it. A symbol of certainty, predictability.

Artwork

By artwork I mean more than pictures hanging on the wall or abstract pieces on lounge tables. Artwork as dominant symbols embedded in the physical structure of the workplace is what can have a powerful effect on setting the psychological mood and offering up a bounded crucible for interaction. Here’s another image from the Hootsuite office that speaks for itself:

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The Hootsuite office in Vancouver. Photo by Ema Peter Photography, courtesy of Kontor. Click through the image for more details.
Color

There is a fairly well developed theory of how color use affects human psychology. I would suggest that it is more than one’s “sense” of the workplace environment. It really is a symbolic statement that keys to energy levels. I’ve written before about how bounding and channeling subtle energy directions can impact what kinds of behavior occur in the conscious workplace.

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An office space at Wellesley College. The mild color sets a contemplative mood. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker, courtesy of Kontor. Click through the image for more details.

For the purpose of this article, think about how you could use this “behavior palette” to guide interior design decisions. What color scheme would you use for the “power office”? Well, blue of course. The innovation center? I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Point being, color is yet another tool in the symbolic design kit.

How can you use symbols in the workplace?

An understanding what symbols are, and what they can do gives workplace designers another tool to use in their creative work. In the interest of brevity, I want to outline three potential “levers” that can be used to turn workspaces into workplaces, and they all link back to reinforcing place brand.

Symbols can be used to set a tone of interaction. High energy, calm, playful — what do you want happening there? From the examples I’ve sketched out above, what kind of logo, artwork, and color would you want to characterize an innovative, creative workplace?

Symbols, and especially rituals, are excellent ways to signify an organizational culture. For example, let’s say you have a design goal to reinforce a communal culture. We know from the research literature that a physical configuration which resembles a “club” would support a communal culture. But what symbols would denote a club like atmosphere? Perhaps an array of re-configurable spaces. Somewhere where you could move from very public to very private places with minimal effort.

Conscious use of symbology, or more technically correct semiotics, can also gives clues to the intended purpose of the workplace. What gets done here, why does it get done here and how does that connect to some larger life affirming good?

The method to the symbol madness

I think a number of readers will get to this point and start to ask: “OK, but how can a designer put in place a process which helps integrate brand purpose and symbolic communication in workplace design?”

The short answer is that there is a way to do that which will lend some social scientific credibility to actionable design suggestions. This magazine isn’t really the most proper venue for an extended discussion on research methods. However, for the curious reader, I’d suggest digging into Causal Layered Analysis. It is fairly new on the design scene (arriving in the public domain circa 1998) and coming from the futures study domain.

The essence of it is that the designer intentional sets out to gather data about workplace “behavior” at four distinct levels: the litany (quantitative); causes (driving trends); structure and discourse (often seen as culture); and, finally, the metaphor and myths which surround the use of the workplace.

I’ve used this technique in several engagements and found that it quickly reveals the mismatches of people’s perceptions of workplace use, its actual use, and the intentions of leaders.

The future of symbols in the workplace

In terms of power to shape beliefs, attitudes, and ultimately workplace behavior, stories are the most powerful symbol. Stories are the myths, the brand culture, and the ultimate answer to the question of “Why do things work this way, here?”

Writing this article comes at a curious time. It is becoming increasingly clear that the old story about work – and by implication – the workplace is being rejected. The old story and its attendant social institutions, which have risen over the past 500 years, were designed to promote continuous growth, first through extraction of non-renewable resources, later by industrial efficiency, and now through manipulation of financial systems and cronyism. These institutions are no longer life-affirming, nor supportive of personal well-being (integration of spirit, mind, and body), let alone human wholeness (integration of individuals into a greater whole).

Work (and where it takes place) is a central human activity, which provides sustenance, community, identity, and now we realize, well-being and wholeness. I focus on it because it is universal, irrespective of political affiliation, religion, or culture.

We need to give birth to a new philosophy — constructed upon shared positive purpose and value, which means rethinking Profit, People, Planet, and creating a new pathway to building a new socially forward story and reality, such as People, Planet, Profit.

We say pathway because a path is found and co-determined — and designed — by its users from inception. Whereas a road is designed and pre-determined by its builders, and then it is either used or not. The old story was about roads; the new one will be about pathways. Pathways which are marked by symbols and have rituals and myths which act as out guides. Pay attention to them or you risk losing your way.

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2 Comments

  • Nice to know the importance of symbols at your workplace. Using symbol has been in practive for a long time and if used effectively it can add to the dignity of your workplace. There are also many things we can do with our workplace. One of them is: our workplace says a lot about who we are and the type of business we have. The right décor combined with keeping the area as neat and tidy as possible will send a message that we are well organized and ready for any challenge that may come through the door.

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